Interesting article in the Tampa Bay Times. Marc Topkin spoke to Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson about BABIP — batting average on balls in play.
The idea of BABIP, in case you’re unfamiliar, is that a pitcher can control walks, strikeouts and homers, but once the ball is in play, the fates and team defense have a bigger bearing on whether it’s a hit or not. This has been shown to be out of control of the pitcher by virtue of it not being a predictable stat. Meaning that the batting average on balls in play allowed by any one pitcher varies wildly from year-to-year.
That part of it is often referred to as a pitcher having “good luck.” I kind of don’t like that because most folks in our society — especially athletes — don’t like thinking that the things they do are the result of luck. At least the positive things. They like to believe it’s all innate skill and moxie, so when you refer to things as being a function of luck, they bristle. That’s what Hellickson did too:
“Yea, I just got lucky on the mound,” Jeremy Hellickson says dryly. “A lot of lucky outs … I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said, not quite sure of the acronym. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play … I can either handle my business or I don’t …”
Some of my statistically-oriented friends may make light of Hellickson’s comments here. And will definitely make fun of another one he makes at the end of the article — “Wins are by far the most important stat” — but I don’t think that’s warranted. It would be if the words came from an analyst or anyone else trying to objectively assess Hellickson’s performance for, say, awards purposes, Hall of Fame purposes or the like. But when the athlete himself says it, who cares?
While collecting wins does not make Hellickson a better pitcher objectively speaking, Hellickson’s job is to get outs and, ultimately, help the team win games. It matters no more that he fully understands and appreciates BABIP theory than it matters that an eagle understands aerodynamics. They do what they do and they try to do it the best they can. Leave it to the analysts — both on the outside and those inside the Rays organization — to figure out why it happened and predict whether it can happen again.
But I would ask Mr. Hellickson one small favor: if you’re not going to credit the happenstance of a good batting average on balls in play for your success in 2011, please don’t let us find you being quoted someplace about all the bad luck you had, if your BABIP goes haywire in 2012, OK?